The Paper Chase
God Bless Your Black Heart
here is something sick going on here. Sideburns smell of sex, birthday cakes are thrown up, ankles swell, mistresses lurk in the shadows of funerals, a Barbie gets grass-stained knees, near-homicidal arguments are conducted through basement doors and lips are bit while ankles are stretched to ear-lobes. In other words, it's nothing unusual for those familiar with John Congleton’s macabre lyrical storytelling.
There is this theory that every record is a concept album. It operates that it must be, if all the songs are written during the same period of time. And, even if they aren’t, often there is still a unifying vision that somehow connects the songs. An artist may write a record with twelve seemingly disparate creations, but on close inspection, a thread of motifs (or motif) will find itself surfacing somewhere in each song: whether that be relational bitterness, a certain political antagonism, a new infatuation, a rebirth, etc, (to be broad.) Then there are albums which are more obviously conceptual, but which are paradoxically more difficult to crack open; more difficult to ascertain what the themes are, who the characters are, and what the fuck the artist is conveying.
John Congleton relishes in these abstruse forms of conceptual storytelling. The Paper Chase's sophomore record, Hide the Kitchen Knives, was something of a Generation-X boyfriend/girlfriend murder mystery told backwards by the murder weapon (you can guess what it was.) Their debut was a more discombobulating melange of stark art-noise which was based around Congleton’s lifelong panic attacks. Then there was Cntrl-Alt-Delete-U, an EP about man’s evolved Icarus-like intentions to defy God through technology. Its title is a perfect example of the band’s dark and, at times, humorously ironic vision.
God Bless Your Black Heart is more than a new page, but a new work of short fiction (but like every work of fiction, there is the possibility that much of it may be slightly reworked elements of truth.) Congleton has taken his reoccurring themes of fundamentalist religion, love-in-flux, an indifference to death, anxiety, paranoia, infidelity, war, and whispered secrets and, with his peerless production skills, created a flowing, epic, musical novel for the times. The album is almost impenetrably dense, with vocal samples of Bible-Belt preachers interweaving with angular guitars, ferocious drums, whatever odd instruments Congleton has at his disposal, and what may or may not be real strings (to which is due a large amount of props for giving the record its epic quality.) Then there is Congleton’s affected nasal vocals, which are part stereotypical punk-emo rocker, part below-the-Mason-Dixon-preacher. Like the latter example, live, Congleton jerks, spits, dabs himself with a handkerchief, and pantomimes along with his lyrics, all in the most affected, overwrought way imaginable, forcing as much emotion and theatrical effort into his art as possible.
The effort that Cogleton and his band have put into God Bless Your Black Heart is impossible to ignore. I've had the record for a few months now, and as I return to it, more words of Congleton’s novel are revealed on the pages in my head, his story emerges layer by layer with each listen. At times, it’s abstrusely stream-of-consciousness and, at others, painfully precise. There are characters: Henry, the widower, "ally cat'n after the wake"; Abeline, his "ruby red diamond girl" and a cremated grandfather, to name a few. It is up to each listener to unravel the story themselves, to revel in and be terrified by the dark beauty that is Congleton’s black, genius, heart.
Reviewed by: Gentry Boeckel
Reviewed on: 2004-08-12